As Meghan Markle and Prince Harry welcome their first child, a baby boy, Rachelle Pouplier explains why having a dual heritage member of the royal family is so important.
I admit I’ve been somewhat enchanted with the royal family for probably my whole life. As a young girl my mother – a British woman of black Caribbean descent and an admirer of the royals herself – would take me to Windsor Castle to look at the Crown Jewels and Queen Mary’s gigantic doll’s house, which only princesses were allowed to play with. Their world was a fairytale one that a little mixed-race girl like me would only be able to look at from the outside, through highly polished windows.
I particularly felt a connection with the younger royals, William and Harry. I was 10 years old when their mother Diana died, and the image of them trotting behind their mother’s coffin is seared into my brain. It was only later in my 20s that I became more critically aware and thereby more disenchanted with the monarchy. At a time when I was disputing my own history and identity I realised how elitist, privileged and unfair their position and wealth was. And that historically this was built upon the hardship of many people from other countries and cultures.
Some of my ancestors were Africans who were brought to the West Indies as slaves by British settlers. It is because of the British Empire that generations of black people do not know where they came from or what their original African names are. And even though it seems like a million years ago, the effects of colonialism are still felt today. It is a pain that resonates through black, Asian and mixed-race communities whenever they are confronted with everyday racist comments.
Watching a particular scene from Netflix’s The Crown made me feel that pain again: when Prince Philip (played by Matt Smith) made fun of the headdress of an African chief, I grasped the basic racist reasoning that the Empire, and by extent the monarchy, founded its system on. My disenchantment with the royal family was cemented.
But things changed when Meghan Markle came on the scene – an American actress with a black mother and a white father, who has a strong and unapologetic understanding of who she is. As the royal wedding drew closer I rekindled my interest in the royals, reading every piece written by other women of colour about what a biracial princess meant for “us”.
And even though it wasn’t quite as overwhelming as when Barack Obama became president, my feelings watching Meghan Markle walk down the aisle came very close to the excitement and the hope for change that I felt in 2008. For me, the most powerful moment was hearing the gospel choir sing Stand By Me inside Windsor Castle. It left my mum and I with goosebumps. This wasn’t just a white royal wedding – it was also a proud dual heritage wedding.
I realise that many of my white friends don’t really understand why having a mixed-race royal baby matters. They think as long as it’s as cute as William and Kate’s children George, Charlotte and Louis, who cares about its skin colour? But to people of colour, having a mixed-race child in the royal family does matter. If anything, it might be even more important than having a mixed-race Duchess of Sussex.
So far, the royal family has kept its bloodline pretty white, although there are some exceptions – as historian Ben Macintyre writes in The Times: “Prince Harry has both Asian and African bloodlines, from both sides of his parentage. Princess Diana’s great-great-great-grandmother was at least half-Indian.” Additionally, the Queen’s great-great-great-great-grandmother, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who lived in the 18th century, is suspected to be a descendant from the black branch of the Portuguese Royal House, although this was never confirmed but rather concealed. Meghan and Harry’s baby will be the first mixed-race child openly born into the royal family. It’s a historic change, an acceptance of ethnic diversity that has not been embraced before wholeheartedly.
This is so important for any biracial child growing up in a predominantly white society. My only black female role model as a little girl was my mother. Everyone else around me was white and, like most girls of dual ethnicity, I experienced a wide spectrum of discrimination, ranging from ignorance to blatant racism. Other children made fun of my frizzy hair and supposedly “dirty looking” skin, telling me I should go back to Africa. It was my mother who told me that I was perfect the way I was; society did not.
For a black, Asian, Hispanic or biracial child it can be hard growing up in a place where most role models are white. Dolls and other toys are white, Disney princesses are white, fictional heroines in books and movies are white. Only recently have there been efforts to work against those stereotypes, but they are still rare. I mean, just look at Game of Thrones, where only the slaves are black. It is about time that society affirms all its children. Visible diversity at the highest level of society is key.
Of course, a mixed-race royal baby is not going to suddenly uproot the racism that festers in some people. Nor will it reverse the elitism and privilege that the monarchy stand for. But the very fact that a child who might have a dark complexion and frizzy hair is being welcomed into the what is arguably the most prestigious and elitist institution in the world sends a powerful message. It eases some of the pain girls of dual ethnicity, like me, felt growing up in a primarily white society. And it signals to a younger generation that everyone is (or at least should be) welcome in this society.